Celtics Lead

Kemba Should Replace IT Boston, not Kyrie Boston

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Everybody knows the story by now. Isaiah Thomas, the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, rose to fame in Boston. He found a home there before he was traded to Cleveland. Thomas played his best basketball in Bean Town, finishing fifth in MVP voting in 2017.

Unfortunately, Thomas hasn’t found the same success since. Due to injuries, toxic environments and lack of opportunity, the point guard is yet to return to his former self. However, his time in Boston remains valuable. For Thomas, his years in Boston are a reason for teams to sign him in hopes that he’ll return to form. For the Celtics, it means something else.

Kyrie Irving replaced Thomas in Boston as the starting point guard. Over the past two seasons Irving is averaging 24.1 points, six assists and 1.3 steals per game. After leaving this offseason, the Celtics chose Kemba Walker to replace him. But perhaps it’s Thomas that Walker should replace rather than Irving.

Thomas had a breakout season in 2016-17 that nobody saw coming. Without any stars around him, he led the Celtics to the top seed in the eastern conference. He averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, the highest and third highest marks of his career respectively. Head coach Brad Stevens is largely responsible for unlocking the maximum potential of Thomas, and he could do the same with Kemba Walker now.

Isaiah Thomas played the best basketball of his career in Boston. He averaged a career high 28.9 points per game in 2016-17, leading the Celtics to the top seed in the east and finishing fifth in MVP voting. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Walker and Thomas are both undersized point guards. Walker is listed at 6-feet 1-inch, but standing next to Chris Paul looks more like 6-feet flat. Regardless, point guards in today’s game are typically 6-feet 3-inches or taller, and can get as tall as 6-feet 10-inches like Ben Simmons.

Arriving to a professional level in any sport with an undersized frame is an incredible accomplishment. Excelling in that sport is something else.

In Thomas’ breakout season in Boston, he took more field goals, three-point field goals and free throws than in any other season of his career. Surprisingly, he also had the highest field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentages of his career as well. Typically with more shots, there are more misses because players who score at the magnitude are often taking more difficult shots.

Thomas, however, managed to capitalize on his shot attempts better that season than any other of his career.

A lot of his three-point attempts were off screens or catch-and-shoot threes. In a game against the Miami Heat on December 30, 2016, Thomas scored 52 points. He shot 9-13 (69 percent) on three-point attempts in that game.

Of Thomas’ nine three pointers, four were catch and shoot and four were coming off screens. He only created his own shot once, when the shot clock was winding down and he was forced to throw up a wild shot.

Some threes just happened in the flow of the game. After good transition defense, Marcus Smart threw the ball almost the length of the court to Thomas. On the fast break, he found himself wide open at the three-point line and made the shot.

Others were part of the game plan. At about the five-second mark in the video above, Thomas hits his first three of the game. Jae Crowder dumped the ball into the post for Amir Johnson, then sets an off-ball screen for Thomas, who was behind the play. Thomas zips to a new spot beyond the arc and drills a three over Justise Winslow, who had trouble fighting through Crowder’s screen.

At the 2:23 mark in the video, another play ends with a Thomas catch-and-shoot three. Terry Rozier dumps the ball to Jaylen Brown in the post. Brown spins baseline and draws a double team from James Johnson. That left Jonas Jerebko wide open at the three-point line, who draws Josh Richardson off of Thomas.

Jerebko swings the ball to Thomas, who was hovering at the three-point line the entire possession, and he drills a wide open three. Tyler Johnson tried to rotate over off of Rozier, but Rozier did a good job spacing. Johnson was kept too far from Thomas to rotate in time, which allowed Thomas the wide open shot.

Stevens used screens with Thomas too. At the 1:38 mark, Thomas received screens from both Brown and Jerebko. After his man hit both screens, Thomas had a wide open look for three on the other side of them. Plays like that are seen often with players like Stephen Curry. Curry will whizz around without the ball all possession, running his men into screen after screen until he ends up with an open look. That’s when the ball handler passes it to Curry, who drills the open three more often than not.

At the 2:05 mark, Thomas comes off an Amir Johnson screen with space but off balance. He kicks to Jerebko, and Johnson dives to the post. When Jerebko passes back to Thomas, Johnson immediately comes back up and sets the same exact screen for Thomas. This time, IT keeps his balance and drills the three with his defender behind him, stuck on Johnson’s screen.

Thomas thrived under Brad Stevens’ passing-heavy offense. Ball movement was responsible for many of his open looks, and Walker has potential to thrive under that same system.

Thomas thrived under Brad Stevens’ passing heavy offense. Ball movement was responsible for many of his open looks, and Walker has potential to thrive under that same system. (Image via Matt Stone/Boston Herald)

Walker could thrive in similar situations. He shoots the three ball at 35.7 percent in his career, 0.3 percent lower than Thomas. Walker shot the ball a combined 37 percent his two seasons prior to joining Boston. Thomas shot just 35.2 percent the two years before his breakout season. Walker is entering his situation with a better track record than Thomas, which is cause to believe he could thrive the same way or even more than Thomas did in Boston.

Many of Thomas’ other buckets in that game came as a result of layups and shots close to the basket. He made 13 free throws, nine three pointers, and six two-point field goals. One was a midrange jumpshot, the other five were all at the rim.

At the 1:02 mark in the video above, Al Horford sets an off-ball screen for Thomas. Richardson did a good job fighting over Horford’s screen, so when Thomas catches the ball, he doesn’t have a good look to shoot. Thomas recognizes that his defender is on his back and makes a quick cut straight to the basket. He uses his speed and small frame to slip through defenders and blow by the slower big men. Thomas gets right up to the basket and takes a virtually uncontested layup.

The very next highlight is Thomas using a Johnson off-ball screen to get open. He springs out to the three-point line, where Tyler Johnson follows, but a bit too closely. Thomas reads his overreaction and immediately cuts towards the basket. Hassan Whiteside was drawn out of the paint by Amir Johnson, so Thomas is quickly past them both. Josh McRoberts hopelessly makes an effort to help from the corner, but to no avail. Another Thomas layup.

Walker, like most NBA players, is capable of making shots within five feet of the basket. Stevens, and Boston in general, has a way of unlocking potential some players didn’t even realize they possessed. Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Crowder, Brandon Bass, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger are a handful of players who have contributed to the Celtics in ways they haven’t been able to contribute anywhere else in the league.

They’re players who turned court time into winning. They made a legitimate impact in Boston that they haven’t been able to match since. Guys stick around, but often times they seem to have the most value in Boston.

And Walker might be next.

Kemba Walker came to Boston via a sign-and-trade this past week. He’ll look to improve his game and winning percentage in his new city. (Photo courtesy of Maddie Meyer/Getty Images.)

Walker is a capable three-point shooter, at least to the extent Thomas was when he joined the Celtics. He’s a proven scorer, just like Thomas, and has made a career of getting tough buckets. In Boston, those buckets shouldn’t have to be as tough.

Walker is capable of matching Thomas’ production in Boston, it’s just a matter of being used correctly. Thomas led the Celtics to their best record since 2010-11, disregarding the season following his departure. Even a healthy Kyrie couldn’t manage what Thomas did.

Thomas led his team to a conference finals bout against LeBron James, Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s the deepest playoff run the Celtics made since the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett days, back in 2011-12. The team wasn’t loaded with stars, and people claimed they didn’t belong in that position, but regardless of what they said, it’s where the Celtics were.

People are doubting this year’s Celtics team. The east is getting stronger, and it looks like Boston is losing its position amongst the powerhouses. But Boston has proven it doesn’t need one star or a big three. It doesn’t need a weaker conference to succeed. Boston just needs capable players who all want to win together, and it looks like that’s what it got.

If Kemba can be utilized the same way Thomas was, and if the players around him can all support a common cause, there’s no reason to believe the Celtics can’t end up back in the conference finals or beyond. It’s just a matter of putting it together now, and Boston has all summer to accomplish that.

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About Jared Penna

Jared was born and raised in central Massachusetts and is currently studying journalism at Quinnipiac University. Currently writes for TLSM's Celtics Lead branch.

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